Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a terrifying, yet exquisite venture into madness

Mia Goth as Sara and Dakota Johnson as Susie star in Suspiria

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a terrifying, yet exquisite venture into madness. It reeks with a sick and tender beauty. To call it a “remake” of Daario Argento’s 1977 film of the same title suggests it will fill the frame similarly, but it’s far from the truth. The bright and feverish splashes of color that Argento favored are abandoned for a more stripped down, bleak and neutral palette, which is beautiful nonetheless. The story keeps its core: a young woman, Susie Bannion, is seeking glory as a dancer and ventures to the Tans Academy in Berlin. Yet all is not as it seems; within the walls of the dance school is an age-old coven of witches.

Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Berlin, fresh-faced from Ohio and eager to prove herself to the esteemed instructors at the Markos Company. She scuttles to the doors of the dance company in the rain, stirring up the ghost of Jessica Harper’s stormy journey all those years ago.

The parallels between Argento’s original and Guadagnino’s story are few, with some clear links being the inclusion of most of the characters and a few of the events (not to spoil) that unfold. Argento’s 1977 film has a faint imprint on a much larger and bolder picture that screenwriter David Kajinic has blown up and massively detailed.

Dakota Johnson stars as Susie in SUSPIRIA Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The story becomes much more intricate and layered, so much so that it can overwhelm the senses and complicate our eagerness to piece the parts together. A dark take on motherhood (or lack of) and attempted feminist values are at play, expanding the world we thought we knew.

We see traces of Susie’s childhood and past, the life she led elsewhere, a detail which was previously unearthed by Argento. It is a dangerous time to be in Berlin. The film is set in 1977, the same year the original was released, against the backdrop of a post-World War II Berlin, rife with unrest and revolution, punks littering the train station, the occasional bomb going off in the dark. This Suspiria is more fleshed out, hollowed and carved before us whether we can stomach it or not.

Susie’s persistence to audition for the school without any formal training is what lands her in Berlin, but her instinct and true talent quickly rise her up the ranks to become the favorite of the indomitable Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). She moves like an animal, her instincts are primal, her hunger is perpetual. Susie is set to dance the role of the Protagonist in the final performance of “Volk,” an infamous dance coined by Blanc herself. The performance sequence of the dance is perhaps the best of any dance film, expertly choreographed and shot. The red ropes crossed and knotted across the torsos of the dancers made to look like blood, dripping. Johnson, captivating as ever, is in the heat of the action. In fact, each dance scene is meticulously choreographed and filmed, jumping from detail to detail. The attention to dance is left out of the original, so its inclusion here only adds to why this update outstrips its origins.

Susie befriends Sara (Mia Goth), who has increasingly become wary of the true nature of the establishment with the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) and departure of the rebellious Olga (Elena Fokina). Sara is not the only one who gradually begins to dig beneath the surface. She is prompted by Patricia’s therapist, Dr. Joseph Klemperer (slyly listed as Lutz Ebersdorf, but in reality a cleverly concealed Tilda Swinton), who worries for his patient’s safety. He first believes her manic state and obsession with witches to be delusion, until suspecting something more foul at play.

Bones break, bodies collapse, the hooks are sharp and unforgiving, the blood creeps grimly across the floor. The violence is not gratuitous, it is purposeful, placed in a series of nightmarish visions that only escalate to a heady grand finale.

The power of women within the film is feral and violent. As Susie remarks upon dancing before Madame Blanc, she felt “like an animal.” It is relieving to see women now, more than ever, have the power, a power that constantly shifts from person to person, changing the rules, affecting the hierarchy, and raising the stakes, almost like a dance. Perhaps, the greatest dance of all.

Ingrid Caven as Miss Vendegast and Director Luca Guadagnino on the set of Suspiria

Yes, the sisterhood and motherhood present breed manipulation and control rather than bounds of love, but it’s the determination of a group of women to stay together (witches or not), work together, and survive together in a world that’s crumbling outside their walls that hits the nail. “Love and manipulation, they share the same house very often,” remarks Dr. Klemperer as he cautions Sara. Although the struggle for power is a thrilling saga to watch, act after act, it can also be a terrifying thing.

Suspiria is beautiful but deadly, gruesome, teeming with tension, violence, sadness, and pain. Thom Yorke’s score, is an unsettling and haunting player, from the opening sequence of “Suspirium,” and most expertly at the film’s crimson climax with the Black Sabbath.    

The handful of horror trailers played before my viewing proved to be lackluster and devoid of any need to challenge the viewer, strung with the usual jump scares and backstories, silence too evident of something about to creep out, musical choices nothing spectacular. Suspiria is a great leap ahead of the modern-day films of its genre, similar to Ari Aster’s Hereditary. It is a breath of fresh air. Something new, something different, and therefore, a venture that is much more exciting.

Dakota Johnson as Susie is captivating, the best we’ve seen her yet. She proved to be a much more capable actress than her previous projects might suggest. Her friendship with Guadagnino is no doubt a part of such a blooming; the pair last collaborated on A Bigger Splash, in which Swinton also starred. Johnson was approached about Susie back in the throws of A Bigger Splash, and spent the next two years preparing for the role as she shot other projects. Tilda Swinton’s collaborative relationship with the director goes back to 1999 with The Protagonist. It is a delight to see her return to his lens, again and again, with Suspiria marking their fourth film together.

Guadagnino has dubbed his last three films an unintended “Desire Trilogy,” each dressed in lush and warm colors befitting the Italian summer, buzzing with tension, with ache, uncertainty. Suspiria is a distant cry from the well-loved Call Me By Your Name, so dissimilar that you wonder how it was made by the same person. Here lies Guadagnino’s genius. A long time student to the school of cinematic horror, he had his sights set on one day making his own version of Argento’s film after seeing it at age 14, locked in his bedroom, entranced by the opulent shades of reds, pinks, blues that filled the screen. He revealed his plans at an AOL Build interview to construct another horror film and oh how lucky we should be to be immersed in one of his wicked worlds again.

The film, without a doubt, requires a second viewing or even multiple viewings (should you dare) to better grasp and uncover its many layers. Unlike anything we’ve seen in more recent years, Suspiria is a masterpiece, a strange miracle birthed by Guadagnino. Its many steps, many pulls, all part of a number of dances, stay with you, and what a dance it is.

This Suspiria asks something more of us; it bites, takes real blood. If we are willing, we too can join in the festivities, sacrificed to the dance.

Suspiria is currently playing in theaters across the US.

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